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Donkin on Work - Women

May 2007 – How women can fill the talent gap

I feel just now that I’m paying for a rare weekend away. All the action this morning was centred in the home-based box room I call my office. The internet connection had failed. I hate to admit it, but when this happens it’s almost like losing a limb.

This is when the IT specialist, who also doubles as finance specialist, home-keeper, cook and lover, not to mention bread-winner, steps in to steady the ship. Up before seven for the school run, down to the gym, straight on to the internet problems, cooking for lunch, clearing some housework in the afternoon then on to the local pharmacy for a locum shift in the evening; my wife has her work cut out.

The weekend had been spent in Giverny, looking at Claude Monet’s water-lily pond with about 500 other people who all wanted to have an exclusive picture of themselves on Monet’s Japanese bridge at the same time.

Monet was an obsessive. He must have completed scores, maybe hundreds of studies and paintings of his precious water-lilies, sitting by himself, minding his own business. It was a selfish occupation, but men are like that. They lose themselves in their work and sometimes take too little notice of the different concerns of others, particularly women.

Women have known this for some time. Men have known it too, but they have been content to preserve the status quo or to fall back on gender differences. Women have the children, not men. Women are the home-makers, the mothers, the carers. Men chop wood, mow the lawn, bring the meat home.

They also follow linear careers, chase promotion prospects and work all hours in an unyielding commitment to the job says Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her new book, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, Keeping talented Women on the Road to Success.

The main title is pretty meaningless among a UK readership and its jaded appetite for an ever-changing transatlantic diet of management jargon that adds little to our understanding of the way we work. As might be guessed, however, the book is trying to shed more light on the problems for women who leave promising careers only to face problems later if they want to re-enter the jobs market.

Books like this are important because they are focussing on the need to adapt the way people work in the face of changing demographics. As Ms Hewlett points out, the recruitment market is tightening with increasing competition for the best candidates in the most high-powered jobs and professions.

But the issue is not simply demographic. There is also a “reverse brain drain” from the US among talented Indian and Chinese nationals returning to promising careers in their home countries. The obvious candidates to fill the void, she says, are women.

I first came across Ms Hewlett five years ago when she wrote in the Harvard Business Review about the difficulties of job re-entry for women. At the same time she wrote of a new generation of women bent on “having it all,” working on the often mistaken belief that they could ignore their biological clocks and delay their families by placing careers first.

Her latest book is not so much about having it all, but about creating careers that better fit the needs and aspirations of women. Sometime this is just about a readjustment of attitudes. Her research, for example, found that many women were deliberately “staying beneath the radar” at work, happy to do their job and wanting recognition for their commitment, but not keen take on more responsibilities.

In a US-based survey of women’s working lives carried out in 2004, Ms Hewlett found that more than a third of the professional women questioned had left their careers for a period of time. But the time spent outside work amounted to just a little over two years on average.

A significant proportion – some 16 per cent – had opted for part-time work at the time of the survey and an equal proportion said they had declined a promotion. When asked to look back at their careers more than a third of those surveyed had worked part-time at some stage.

Women leave their careers, she writes, for a combination of reasons, sometimes to rear a family or to look after elderly relatives and sometimes because work expectations have risen to an unacceptable level.

One point I didn’t see listed as a reason for leaving is “because they can”. Looking at many of the issues behind career breaks, it seems to me that some of these are just as significant for men, but because of their traditional role as breadwinner, it is more difficult for men to make a break.

The survey suggested, however, that a quarter of highly qualified men were leaving their jobs for a period of time, usually as a career change or to obtain extra qualifications, rarely to undertake child care. Sometimes, Ms Hewlett found, men are envious or angry at a wife’s decision to leave work. One of those interviewed said: “I thought I was marrying a high-earning professional, not a stay-at-home wife.”

Near Giverny this past weekend we stayed at a family-run bed-and-breakfast in a former hunting lodge. The man and wife were both lawyers with five children. In this case the mother was running the bed-and-breakfast while her husband continued to work in a legal practice.

Could the arrangement have worked the other way around? Of course it could. Would either party have been comfortable with the alternative? I very much doubt it.

Had there been options for each party to mix-and-match the way they worked, however, the possibility for both partners to share dual roles could have proved attractive. As Ms Hewlett points out, there is a dire need for alternative career paths to run alongside what she calls the “male competitive model.”

Some of the long-hours BlackBerry-dominated stories she documents in the book are unacceptable for either sex yet people, particularly in high-earning bonus-driven financial jobs, are getting sucked in to working patterns that leave them little time for socialising and family life.

It’s good that some City employers are doing more to cater for family lifestyles. Deutsche Bank, for example, now offers a full service nursery at its City office. Lehman Brothers runs a scheme called Encore that offers career-return opportunities for those who have left finance. Ernst & Young, meanwhile, have a series of measures promoting equality including a women’s leadership conference held every 18 months.

But human resources initiatives alone are not sufficient to change attitudes and assumptions that stigmatise those who try to manage their careers in a way that does not seek out ever more responsibilities and workloads.

Since women have been the losers within the traditional obsession with career ladders it is right that they should be leading change now. Ms Hewlett has established an organisation called the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force as a catalyst for these changes in companies. In this case, at least, the name says it all.

Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, is published by Harvard Business School Press, price $29.95.

see also: Women - having it all

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